Annual Trust Mass / Homily of Bishop Dónal McKeown

The Annual Mass of the Edmund Rice Schools Trust was celebrated in St. Mary’s University College on the 29th March 2012.



Edmund Rice Schools Trust

Annual Mass

March 29th 2012

Bishop Dónal McKeown


These are powerful scripture readings that you have chosen for this celebration of your identity as those entrusted with maintain and developing the legacy of Edmund Ignatius Rice in the specific circumstances of early 21st century Northern Ireland. And you have come to the fonts where he drank in order to be nourished – the Word of God and the sacramental presence of Christ at the altar. After all, you are not merely inspired by the memory of a good man who was born exactly 250 years ago this year. Rather, if you are holding in trust his work and his memory, you are open to being inspired by the God who wrote straight on the crooked lines of his life. This was the God who asked him to walk the uneven road that was marked by  persecution and the poverty of so many, by shattered hopes including  early widowhood and the disability of his daughter, the mixture of his dream and the human frailty of both himself and his friends. For the road to Resurrection always leads via Calvary.  Success in God’s eyes is never easily bought. There is no such thing as cheap grace.

And what words jump out at me? The first words from Paul, the prisoner in Rome, speak of his great sense of vocation. He did not decide to follow Christ. His missionary work was not a career choice or a life-style picked from many. It was not something that he fancied would look good on his CV. Paul did not choose. Paul was chosen. In God’s terms, within ERST, you have a vocation. That call is not to be better than anyone, nor to see yourself as lesser than someone else. You are not one more secular Trust with a holy name nor yet another provider of schools that competes for human praise in the market place of education. You are called to be the best that you can be – and then to allow the Lord to build up the Body of Christ to its full maturity through (as Edmund Rice knew only too well) your apparent successes and your apparent failures. Those who thirst for recognition and human acclaim will get merely that. Those who hunger for righteousness desire the glory of God and of all his creatures.

And St Paul is clear that this vocation is not just a call to do a job as well as you can. It is a call to be and not just to do. In the service of inspiring your schools, it is an invitation to model. at Trust level, the spirit of service and courage, of creativity and love of the poor that inspired the man whose name you bear. You are the Trustees, not just of the buildings or even of the enterprise, but of the spiritual vision of your founder. If you fail to engender that spirit of dedicated service in the most difficult of situations, then you cannot expect the schools to generate it from nowhere. You are called to be more than one more promoter of a particular type of school tradition. You are called to be the incarnation of that tradition. It is – as Paul says – to be a way of life that you lead, not merely a network of schools that you manage and develop. Those who seek to follow and bear the name of a saint, have to be saintly if they are to be true to the name they have espoused. St Paul talked about being a fool for Christ’s sake. (1 Cor 4:10). Edmund Rice knew, from his own faithfulness to the path that he had trod, that the foolishness of God was wiser than human wisdom and the weakness of God stringer than human strength (1 Cor 1:25). That all means that, while seeking to be true to your statutes as a civil and canonical entity, you will fail to follow Edmund Rice if you are not true to the faith journey that he followed and the wisdom that he learned from that painful trek. I am not beating you with some stick or preparing to ask you to do something difficult. You have accepted to carry his baton, including being ready to face the challenge of providing educational opportunity where others shy away. And you have done that within the larger community of the Christian Brothers in a variety of initiatives at home and abroad.

The other phrase that strikes me from our first reading is centred on the unity in faith that we share with all the baptised.

Do all you can to preserve the unity of the Spirit by the peace that binds you together.  There is one Body, one Spirit, just as you were all called into one and the same hope when you were called.  There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and one God who is Father of all, over all, through all and within all.

We live in a fragmenting world, where little seems secure and where the future is very uncertain. A society that stands for nothing risks falling for anything. In that context, we already see how, even within the Catholic family of schools, there are signs of self-interest being seen as a more important master to worship, than the unity of the faith-based sector. St Paul is clear that our unity is not merely a local political or ideological drive but a Gospel-based priority. Clearly there are also others outside the Catholic sector who would like to see our restructuring fail, in that the DE Audit has revealed just how comparatively successful Catholic schools are here. But if we fail to be Gospel-driven, we may well end up losing the very religious inspiration that is the source of so much of the success of Catholic education in all parts of the world.

Can I ask you to reflect carefully on those words of St Paul? Some stakeholders in education may insist that they need to keep their market share and they will understandably prioritise what serves that end. But you are called to be faithful to Gospel values and to Edmund Rice principles and not merely successful in human terms. When Catholic education that allows market values to dominate, it risks failing to serve the Gospel and can end up serving only itself. You have commendable projects linking your schools with communities in the developing world. But that outreach risks losing credibility unless it also reaches out to the school around the corner. And we face genuine problems of this type in NI. The words of St Paul tell us to prioritise unity, not just as a useful tool and a source of strength but as a core element of what we are called to be. In that context, the theme for the International Eucharistic Congress challenges us to avoid two extremes. We have to overcome the temptation to be so earthly wise that we have only human wisdom to offer. And to obviate the risk of being so heavenly that we are no earthly use. Communion with Christ and with one another are two constitutive elements of discipleship.  Theologically put, orthodoxy requires orthopraxis. Sociologically put, bonding capital has to spill out into bridging capital. Piety and community are at the service of the world’s salvation. Neither is an optional extra. Keeping the two in balance is no easy task.

And St Paul gives further wise guidance. Using modern parlance, we might suggest to education that our schools exist, not to measure how intelligent people are but to help them appreciate how they are intelligent. That is simply reflected in the modern educational maxim that teachers aren’t involved not so much in the assessing of learning as in assessment for learning. It would be terrible if Catholic education – and particularly those who carry the name of Edmund Rice – were to reflect any notion that the education of the gifted was more important than the education of the challenged and challenging. Or to suggest that any school, which bear the name of the man whose followers laboured to serve the poor, would prefer not to have the poor about them to disturb the progress of the already advantaged. Faithfulness to his vision was costly to Edmund Ignatius Rice. That is why he is already among the ranks of the Blessed. Faithfulness to his vision will be costly to you as well. As Holy Week tells us clearly, standing for the truth rather puts all of us in painful positions. That meant Jesus had to resist all the temptations that pressed him to respond to the blandishments of those who wanted him to be sensible and listen to the loudest voices. But only the truth will set us free.

You have set yourselves very high standards for what you want to accomplish in your schools, individually and together. And those standards echo some of the thoughts from our scripture readings this evening.

The educational approach in the schools is neither functional nor utilitarian, but subscribes to the holistic vision expressed in the following five key elements:

– Nurturing faith, Christian spirituality and Gospel-based values;

– Promoting partnership;

– Excelling in teaching and learning;

– Creating a caring school community;

– Inspiring transformational leadership. (from your Charter, p.7)

You will have to take decisions that some will condemn as ‘jumping’ but which you will see as ‘leading’. You will have to show confidence when some will prioritise caution and ‘what we have we hold’. You will keep insisting on the centrality of faith-promotion when some parents and even staff will seek only exam marks. You will insist on transformation when others want only information and a bit of formation. You will promote sometimes unpopular partnerships when some others will see only ‘ourselves alone’. But those are precisely the places where the radical nature of your founder’s vision will be visible or obscured. It is in these difficult cases that your faithfulness will be tested and made visible.

The Irish Christian Brothers came about because of the passion of one man for the welfare of the many. We need radical voices in Catholic education just as much today. You have accepted the call to step up to the mark and to play that role. Today we pray that you can continue in your service of Christ’s body, the Church.

In this way we are all to come to unity in our faith and in our knowledge of the Son of God, until we become the perfect Man, fully mature with the fullness of Christ himself.